Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Solving Scientific Puzzles

This blog wraps up a series that highlights the five outstanding grad students who received a CAST Science Communication Scholarship to attend the 2018 CAST Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California, during the last full week of October. This pilot program required applicants to submit a 30-second video explaining why science communication plays such a critical role in sharing their research findings. Wright explained why she wanted to be a scientist and how she can help bridge the gap between research that occurs in the laboratory and the knowledge that reaches the average consumer. Her video can be found on CAST's YouTube channel and other CAST social media.

Growing up on a farm engrossed in an agricultural community in western Kentucky generated Wright's natural connection between genomics and agriculture. "I always gravitated toward science classes in middle school, but my interest was clarified a bit more during my sophomore year of high school." Wright's tenth-grade biology teacher assigned a DNA-themed puzzle activity that taught her how base pairs of DNA are bound together like a puzzle. "I remember really resonating with that activity and wanting to learn more about genetics since I loved the idea of working on a large 'puzzle-like' project." She wanted to put the science she had grown to love to good use--answering questions related to agricultural concepts she grew up with.

At the age of 16, Wright was accepted into the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in western Kentucky. Impressively, she completed her last two years of high school at the academy, with college-level course work, while living on the university's campus. After graduating from the Gatton Academy, Wright attended the University of Kentucky (UK), where she received her bachelor of science degree in agricultural and medical biotechnology with minors in psychology, microbiology, and biological sciences. During her undergraduate studies, she won the global level of the Alltech Young Scientist competition and was awarded a fellowship for her graduate studies. After completing her degree at UK, Wright and her husband moved to California so she could pursue her Ph.D. at the University of California-Davis in microbiology. "My research has varied throughout the years, but my love for microbiology and agriculture is what drew me to study at Davis."

Wright shared that a big part of her academic journey has been learning to stay true to herself and making choices that might have been difficult at first, but ultimately led her to her career. "Choosing to attend college, pursue a Ph.D., and move across the country were all choices that weren't always comfortable or well accepted by some. What helped me to be sure about those decisions was being my own advocate and imagining the advice I would give to a peer in my situation. In the end, these have all been positive life-changing experiences and I'm glad I followed my gut." If she could go back and do it all over again, she would tell her younger self to pursue science fearlessly and unapologetically. "I think I struggled with the intimidation of wanting to pursue a career that required so many years of higher education, but I wish I would have realized earlier how great the time spent would be because I would be doing what I truly loved."

Currently working in Dr. Jorge Rodriguez's lab studying microbial communities within crop soils, Wright is pursuing a designated emphasis in biotechnology. "I think microbiomes will become an immensely helpful tool in the future for agriculture, food safety, and human health. I believe these predictive tools will be able to aid in preventing diseases, increasing crop yields, and bettering animal health."

Transitioning from her Kentucky childhood into college and now graduate school has been an eye-opening experience for Wright. The intersection of her life experiences in agriculture and science have made her intentional about pursuing scientific communication opportunities as she strives to bridge the gap between research and public knowledge. Being a part of a collaborative, interdisciplinary, applied research project reinforces her motivation to be involved in scientific communication so that results like hers can be understood and implemented in an impactful fashion. "I believe where the interdisciplinary research intersects with policy, media, and real-world applications is truly where science moves the world forward. I am passionate not only about being a well-trained scientist, but also being able to communicate my research and scientific literature to those who may benefit from it the most."

When Alonna is not conquering the science communications community with her insight and skills, she can be found reading a good book, watching Netflix, and baking. This young lady knows how to work diligently when it's time to pursue her dreams and goals, but she also stays grounded with some well-deserved relaxation time. It has been a true pleasure getting to know Mrs. Wright, and we look forward to working with her in the future.

Click here to view Alonna Wright's video or follow her on Twitter at @lonna_wright.

By: Kylie Peterson

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